As Christmas celebrations go, the United States of America has a huge range of different traditions and customs because of its multicultural nature. Many are similar to ones in the UK, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland and Mexico, but because of overlaps with other holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the period is referred to as the “Holiday Season” so as to ensure full inclusivity.
A Christmas meal for Western European families usually comprises of turkey or ham with cranberry sauce. However, families with Eastern European origins prefer turkey with trimmings, a Polish sausage called ‘keilbasi’, and cabbage dishes and soups. Some Italian families even prefer lasagne!
It’s also popular to decorate the outsides of houses with elaborate light displays, and sometimes even huge statues of Santa Claus, Snowmen and Reindeer. In New England, (the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine), there are shops called ‘Christmas Shops’ that are open all year round, but only sell Christmas decorations for purposes like this.
Towns and cities often decorate the streets with lights to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps the most famous Christmas street lights in the USA are at the Rockerfeller Centre in New York, where there is a huge tree with a public ice skating rink in front of it over Christmas and the New Year (which has an important cameo in Home Alone 2).
Customs such as ‘Mumming’ take place in some communities. A mumming is a type of folk play with European origins that combines music, dance, and sword fighting in episodes involving the death and revival of a character or characters. On New Year’s Day in Philadelphia there is a Mummer’s Day parade which lasts over six hours! Clubs called “New Years Associations” perform in amazing costumes which take months to make. There are four categories (Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades) which are judged.
In the Southwest USA, there are some special customs which have some similarities to those in parts of Mexico. These include ‘luminarias’ or ‘farolitos’ which are paper sacks partly filled with sand and then have a candle put in them. They are lit on Christmas Eve and are put the edges of paths. They represent ‘lighting the way’ for somewhere for Mary and Joseph to stay. One popular food at Christmas in the Southwest USA are tamales.
In the south of Louisiana, on Christmas Eve, families in small communities along the Mississippi River light bonfires along the levees (the high river banks) to help ‘Papa Noel’ (the name for Santa in French as Louisiana has a strong historical connection with France) find his way to the children’s homes.